Missing Places I've Never Been: A Love Letter to Alex Ross

"Uncle Sam" (partial)

The appeal, the madness of Ross' painting is that it makes a scene involving a fight between spandex-clad do-gooders seem almost as important as Rockwell's depiction of the first step to end racial segregation.

Back at my junior high school gig in California, I taught this endearingly quirky and eccentric punk rock/emo eighth grader who was a big old Nirvana nerd. Her enthusiasm for a movement (or perhaps a mere moment) that preceded her birth brought to mind my own junior high allegiance to all things Jim Morrison and Jello Biafra.

While I eventually managed to see Misfits founder Glenn Danzig in concert, and later the Ramones, Social Distortion, Pink Floyd, Motorhead and a number of other technically before-my-time performers, Morrison was long-dead by this time (the early '90s), and Biafra had long-since disbanded the Dead Kennedys (who have since successfully sued their former frontman for refusing to sell their seminal hit "Holiday In Cambodia" to Levi's for a Dockers commercial; they celebrated their newfound ownership of the Dead Kennedys catalog by offering the same track to the Guitar Hero video game franchise. Hard core!)

Since I couldn't buy a ticket to see Biafra or Morrison live, they managed to retain some of their mysterious aura. They remained elusive somehow, always just beyond my reach, and all the more intriguing for it.

In 1993, while I was obsessing over The Wall's liner notes and scribbling punk rock logos in the margins of my high school notebooks, a 23-year-old Flash Gordon fan by the name of Alex Ross contributed a painted cover to a novelization of a popular comic book about the death of Superman. Just three years later, Ross was already a comic book legend.

Ross' work in such titles as Marvels and Kingdom Come lent an epic, nostalgic legitimacy to even the most absurd relics from the Marvel and DC archives; in an industry largely consumed by nostalgia, the appeal of an artist with a vision as loving and earnest as Ross' is obvious. However, my own reasons for worshipping at the altar of Ross are perhaps a bit more obscure.

Though his paintings are often compared to those of Americana icon and Saturday Evening Post mainstay Norman Rockwell (and while they are nearly as accessible as Rockwell's), what draws me again and again to Ross is the same elusive, intangible, before-my-time, just-out-of-reach aura of mystery that pervades live recordings of Black Flag or Buddy Holly.

While your typical Ross painting is as American as Coca-Cola or L. Frank Baum, his obsession is not merely with comic book big guns like Batman and Fantastic Four, but also the more obscure icons of the comic book industry's Golden and Silver Ages. Having never discovered comics until my 20s, I am not familiar with a good majority of characters in a given Ross comic or postcard or collector's plate, and I find it difficult to overlook the inherent cheesiness of the comics such characters starred in so many decades ago, and so strangers they must remain.

But not quite.

While aesthetic similarities between the works of Ross and Rockwell have been noted repeatedly, what's seldom if ever addressed is that Ross' work also boasts the same startling emotional resonance as Rockwell's. I may know nothing about Red Tornado or Captain Marvel, but a Ross portrait makes me feel as if I remember such characters with a fondness usually reserved for one's childhood bedroom or hometown movie theater.

Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" (partial)

I wasn't there to see segregation end in the schools, but gazing at Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" makes me remember it as if I had been. Likewise, I never read about the Justice League of America's battle with Starro the intergalactic starfish (yes), but the appeal of Ross' depiction of said battle is that it makes me feel that I might have been there, that it might indeed have taken place the same day those US Marshals escorted a young Ruby Bridges to school.

The appeal, the madness of Ross' painting is that it makes a scene involving a fight between spandex-clad do-gooders and spacefaring marine life seem somehow almost as important as Rockewell's depiction of the first step to end racial segregation. When a painting (or a song or a comic or a film) makes you yearn to return to a time or place you've never experienced, its effect is no longer mere nostalgia, but rather some new and subtly unsettling breed of propaganda.

No single artist's aesthetic, with the possible exception of Bruce Timm's, has dominated the superhero genre over the past decade like Ross'. Further, like Rockwell, there is something uniquely American about the works of Ross. Perhaps it's simply that Ross' own obsessive nostalgia is primarily for Americana fixture Superman, particularly from his "Truth, Justice and the American Way" heyday. Or perhaps it is because the comic book medium, itself an American original, has for years now endeavored to incorporate (or outright mimic) the Japanese manga aesthetic, whereas Ross himself keeps his vision stubbornly, defiantly consistent, bucking all trends in favor of dutifully following his Rockell/Superman muse.


Are Ross' paintings too stilted or lifeless, as some have suggested? Is his work too accessible, too consistently non-threatening? Some respond to a Ross painting like he's the savior of a medium that doesn't deserve him, while others suggest he's a cookie-cutter hack in the vein of Thomas Kincade.

When I see a Ross painting, I respond with all the detached objectivity my beloved eighth grade student brought to her study of Kurt Cobain. When I explore Ross' latest rendering of the absurd pulp gods of the 20th century striking pompous poses and engaging in fisticuffs, I am reduced to monosyllabic awe.


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